Illustration by Christopher Sleboda
It’s not your usual City Opera cast: Eartha Kitt, Lypsinka, Lea DeLaria, Renée Taylor, et al. But then, this isn’t the Cinderella one usually expects to see at the City Opera, where everyone’s favorite fairy-tale heroine generally goes to the ball and finds her Prince Charming to the music of Rossini or Massenet. No, this is a gussied-up production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, originally written for television in 1957, and the City Opera has gone all out in its sweaty embrace of pop culture, offstage as well as on. During the show’s nine-day run, one lucky child won Cinderella’s rocking-horse coach at a raffle. Losers could purchase all sorts of merchandise: princess charms, dolls, wands, tiaras, music boxes, puppets, children’s books, CDs, and T-shirts. After last Saturday’s matinee, there was a Cinderella Family Ball, where children of all ages could learn a waltz from the show, try on a glass slipper, and be photographed with Cinderella and her prince.
That was just the marketing side—tacky perhaps, but I hope the company at least made a million dollars off it. Despite the promise of much high-camp hilarity onstage, the production itself was rather less busy, although considering the unassuming nature of the piece, that was probably just as well. Clearly its unpretentious dimensions were calculated to fit the small-screen format of fifties live television, and any attempt to inflate the project to Broadway proportions might well be doomed to failure. Hammerstein chose to retell the old tale straightforwardly and without adding any fancy embellishments, while Rodgers’s score is practically an exercise in theatrical chamber music that contains many subtle, characteristic touches. My favorite is the sly harmonic slippage that gives Cinderella’s wistful “In My Own Little Corner” its strange, bittersweet flavor—a song that has its exact counterpart in the operas of Rossini and Massenet, and hardly suffers in comparison.
In that respect it was something of a relief that this high-powered cast, no doubt encouraged by director and choreographer Baayork Lee, showed so much restraint. On the other hand, perhaps if everyone had let go a bit more the whole thing would not have seemed quite so flat. John “Lypsinka” Epperson’s cross-dressing evil Stepmother, and the two butch Stepsisters as played by Lea DeLaria and Ana Gasteyer, carried coded gay shtick about as far as it can go in this brave new era of moral values, but they also put a lid on any wicked wit that might have brought real humor to their work. Dick Van Patten and Renée Taylor as the King and Queen had scarcely any dramatic presence at all, surely a sore disappointment to anyone who recalls how charming Walter Pidgeon and Ginger Rogers were in the show’s second TV production.
At least Eartha Kitt was one bit of inspired casting against type that worked, and good enough to make me regret that her one scene is over so quickly. Kitt invites us to meet an enchanted Fairy Godmother who need only cock a jaundiced eye, magisterially request a cup of tea, and demand the impossible to command total attention—no Cinderella in her care would dare miss a midnight deadline. And with her sweet soprano and disarming manner, Sarah Uriarte Berry kept all her appointments on time, a lovely Cinderella who surely deserved a more charismatic Prince than the wooden stick Christopher Sieber was offering.
In the end, I suspect that Rodgers and Hammerstein got it right the first time. Cinderella works best on TV rather than the stage, where its modest charms tend to be overwhelmed, even by the most discreet “fabulous fairy-tale cast.” And if this one scarcely lived up to expectations, at least there were all those trinkets, gewgaws, and party favors to inspect and take home.
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella was written not for Broadway but for broadcast. In 1957, 107 million viewers—then the largest TV audience ever—watched the CBS premiere, starring Julie Andrews. Aired in color on the East Coast and black-and-white out West, the show was never rerun—CBS declined, then rights issues interfered. But on December 5, the fairy godmothers at PBS will air it for the second time ever, in conjunction with its DVD release.
Directed By Baayork Lee
New York City Opera; Through November 21.